The “creative” crowd in Hollywood thinks the way to deal with all of society’s real problems is to devise fictional and often simplistic stories for television or film. In the alternative and fake universe that is the entertainment community, every issue can be addressed through a filmmaker’s dramatic approach.
The problem with this thinking is that some societal difficulties just don’t lend themselves well to psycho-cinematic treatment by self-anointed experts who might know about producing fictional entertainment, but not about the cultural challenges of real life.
So it is for the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” The show deals with the harsh world many teens face today, including depression, sexual assault, substance abuse, bullying, and suicide. Adults depicted in the show are largely clueless and absent, so the teens must fend for themselves. The first season concluded with the lead character’s taking her own life. The second season is just out — and it features more of the coarse language, depictions of drug and alcohol abuse, and violence.
The series has won the expected praise from the entertainment establishment for being “unblinking,” “sincere,” and “creatively successful.” The recently released season wraps up with a brutal scene in which a group of high school boys sodomizes another teen boy with a mop handle.
The show’s creator, Brian Yorkey, defended the show’s approach in a statement to Vulture: “We’re committed on this show to telling truthful stories about things that young people go through in as unflinching a way as we can.” By the way, the show is based on a novel, not actual truth. Yorkey goes on to rationalize, “We believe that talking about it is so much better than silence.”
Everyone can agree teens today face many harsh challenges. Parents, school administrators, and counselors can also agree that the dark difficulties of this era must be confronted with straight talk. The issue is whether a graphic, dark, fictionalized show on Netflix is the proper context in which teens can put these serious issues into perspective. It is also whether parents, coaches, trusted teachers, ministers, and counselors are all in better positions to reach and guide troubled teens and to understand their individual circumstances.
A particular problem is that this program is viewed by teens who, more likely than not, are viewing the show by themselves and without co-viewing support from a responsible adult. High schoolers and middle schoolers have easy access to the show through their electronic devices.
Kids who are struggling with depression, bullying, and the other social problems depicted in the program are sure to be further disheartened by observing the carnage and chaos of “13 Reasons Why.” Indeed, some parents have pointed to the show as a contributing factor in their teens’ suicides or attempts at self-harm. School administrators have noted an uptick in students harming themselves or threatening such behavior.
The watchdog group Parents Television Council (PTC) has been warning the public about this show for months. PTC Program Director Melissa Henson watched the recently released second season, and she said the series will complicate emotions for teens who have feelings of hopelessness. “For kids who are already at risk, who are bullied or abused, the show may only serve to trigger those feelings and create dangerous real-life circumstances.”
The show is obviously marketed to young people, even though Netflix has rated it TV-MA (mature audiences only), a confession in itself. In another acknowledgement of the fire Netflix knows it is playing with, characters from the show provide a public service announcement warning viewers, this series may not be right for you.” An on-screen message also directs viewers on where to find “crisis resources.”
Defenders of the show will scream that opponents are somehow trying to censor the producers or cover up society’s ills. That old straw man is nonsense. The producers, of course, have the right to create a wide range of destructive programs. The issue is whether this show is a help or a hindrance in addressing the teen challenges about which the producers say they are so concerned. There are better vehicles for confronting the social dysfunctions of high schoolers.
Raising teens is hard enough without the complications coming from Hollywood.
If Netflix is so socially conscious and committed to the reduction of bullying, depression and associated problems, let it redirect the massive resources that have been invested in production, marketing, and paying actors for “13 Reasons Why.”
That money could do much more good being funneled into social service agencies and research organizations. Raising teens is hard enough without the complications coming from Hollywood.
Jeffrey McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University. Follow him on Twitter.
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